One of the questions surrounding Presbyterians in the midst of COVID-19 is how it will impact the planned gathering of the 224th General Assembly (2020) in Baltimore this summer. The assembly is currently scheduled for June 20–27 at the Baltimore Convention Center.
This week, Baltimore officials announced that the convention center could also serve as a field hospital as the number of infected patients continues to rise. The convention center has not yet been converted or seen its first patient. As previously announced, OGA leaders have already delayed opening registration for GA224 until no later than April 20.
On Thursday the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) met virtually to consider several options for conducting the assembly should the virus continue to spread in the coming months. The options range from moving ahead with the planned gathering in June to conducting a virtual assembly.
Following an executive session, COGA released a statement saying, “The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly is meeting weekly and watching closely as information unfolds about COVID-19. The health and well-being of all involved in the 224th General Assembly (2020) is of the utmost importance. We are taking this time to evaluate all the options for GA and will share a decision with you no later than April 17. One of the options is a fully virtual GA, with training provided for participants in advance.”
Last week, COGA members expressed concern about the continuing spread of the virus and the impact on small churches as well as pastors and church staff. Those conversations continued this week.
OGA leaders say they remain in constant contact with the Presbytery of Baltimore and other groups during this unknown time.
The Reverend Eliana Maxim, co-executive presbyter with the Presbytery of Seattle, says they are still dealing with the impact of the virus and it’s taking its toll on the local economy.
“Unemployment has skyrocketed. We were one of the most employed cities in the country,” she said. “It is amazing how much we depend on large businesses and we are now feeling the financial pinch and seeing what this looks like for our churches.”
Maxim says the presbytery's executive board is taking steps to help churches impacted by the virus including approving emergency grant programs for churches.
Jihyun Oh, director of Mid Council Ministries in the Office of the General Assembly, says staff have been reaching out to mid council leaders who are struggling with several challenges.
“Presbyteries are doing well in connecting with churches and pastors virtually. The check-ins have been good, and they will continue to do that,” said Oh. “A lot of folks are feeling the repercussions now.”
Oh says there are mid councils in some states that are struggling because the state leaders have yet to make decisions about in-person versus virtual meetings, adding that some churches and leaders continue to meet.
“Some mid council leaders tell us they’ve been in around-the-clock meetings for several weeks and are worried about burnout and overload,” Oh said. “We need to continue to lift them up in prayer.”
The Reverend Tricia Dykers Koenig, associate director for Mid Council Ministries, told COGA she’s gratified by the way people are stepping up to be the church during the outbreak.
“While it is stressful and there are a lot of unknowns, church leaders are trying to make good decisions when information is not available,” she said. “I am incredibly impressed with mid council leaders and how they support pastors and congregations.”